Max Schireson, CEO of Mongo DB caused quite a stir this summer. But not for the reasons one might expect of a Silicon Valley executive. He didn’t leave for another high-profile position to advance his career; nor did he leave for a struggling non-profit needing his skills; nor did he leave for reasons of health, trauma, or personal struggle.
He stepped down from his job and position to spend more time with his family.
Taking Another Look at Priorities
Schireson did something many working women do: drop out. An astonishing 37% of women withdraw from the workforce mid-career. And in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions, that number is higher at 52%.
The number of mid-career dropouts in STEM professions is only half the story, because fewer women enter those professions to begin with. Dropping out of science and math starts in elementary school, and continues right up through graduate school.
What’s Going On?
Why are so many young women dropping out???
There are many reasons, but a chief cause it the self-fulfilling prophecy:
- The prevailing stereotypes that women don’t excel in STEM subjects actively discourage them from entering these jobs. Belief becomes reality: Studies show that professors at research institutions strongly favor male applicants over female applicants, even when qualifications are equivalent. Surprisingly, even female professors share the same bias.
But the impact of stereotypes doesn’t stop there. These attitudes also operate in the workplace:
- It’s an open secret that the work atmosphere in technology is competitive, and aggressive—if not downright hostile to women. The “guys’ club” macho atmosphere often leaves women out of networks and diminishes their opportunities to advance.
Though half of all women in STEM professions drop out mid-career, few take note. When a man does, people notice.
Schireson nails this discrepancy on his blog:
Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, whether she could balance the demands of being a mom and being a CEO. The Atlantic asked similar questions of PepsiCo’s female CEO Indra Nooyi. As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO.
Why Drop Out?
Schireson’s post points to one of the reasons men dominate leadership roles more broadly: their lack of role conflict.
Role conflict is the stress of playing two or more competing roles.
Most of us have dealt with role conflict:
- Do I go fishing, or take my son to buy new shoes for school, so my wife can sleep in?
- Do I stay late at the office to go over my presentation, or attend the parent-teacher conference at school?
However, higher status—whether due to position, wealth, or gender—diminishes role conflict. Wealth and position allow us to outsource the tasks and duties of our roles to others.
Traditional gender roles work this way too. Simply put, men have fewer roles to navigate, and less role conflict. It’s easier to move ahead if you have more time to dedicate to one responsibility.
Reducing Role Conflict
For women, reducing role conflict may be a powerful lever for change. If we look at the issue through a global lens, the countries with the highest rates of women in management have one thing in common: means for reducing role conflict.
What are those countries? You may be surprised.
Where Are Women Climbing the Corporate Ladder?
While the global average is 24%, China leads the pack with 51% of senior management jobs held by women. Russia comes in second with 43%, followed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia and Armenia—each with 35% or more. Southeast Asia also exceeds the average percentage of women in senior management with Indonesia (41%), the Philippines (40%) and Thailand (38%) at the top.
So who’s at the bottom?
The G7 economies, according to this report by accounting firm Grant Thornton, with only 21% of senior roles occupied by women.
Why are those countries are doing better? Many post-communist countries profit from decades of equal opportunity backed by workplace policies and benefits, such as long maternity leaves, day care, shorter working hours, and other programs that eased role conflict and enabled women—and men—to focus on their families. The enduring legacy of those policies results in larger numbers of women in management.
In East Asian countries, the relatively high proportion of women in senior management can be partially explained by extended family support systems. Most families live with or near grandparents and other relatives who can provide free childcare.
Of all our efforts to make the workplace equal for women and friendly to families in the United States, this support lags most. While nearly two-thirds (63%) of companies offer flexible working hours, only 6% offer onsite daycare, and only 16% offer child care vouchers or support.
If global figures give us any indication of what moves the needle on this problem, reducing role conflict should top the list.
A Human Problem, Not a Women’s Problem
Business suffers whenever anyone drops out mid-career. Not only is it a huge loss of talent and organizational knowledge, but role conflict robs companies daily in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity, and tardiness. In a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, child-care issues were named by employers as one of the biggest cause of workplace absenteeism and tardiness.
(And it’s not only child care. Increasingly, caring for aging and infirm parents is putting pressure on employees and employers.)
Men also miss out on family life. In a survey of Wharton male undergraduates, more men plan to abstain from fatherhood than in previous generations.
They simply can’t see how children fit into the picture.
What Will It Take?
The change starts with defining this as a human problem, not a women’s problem. Neither is it a work-life balance issue.
It’s a business problem, a productivity problem, a talent drain, and waste of investment.
People on the margins are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the first to notice and sound the alarm to an issue that eventually (if not currently) affects us all. But it’s not their problem, no more than car pollution is a problem only for those who live nearest the freeway.
Women’s drop-out rate is a symptom of something that negatively affects men and companies as well. So let’s call it what it is, and recognize that we all pay the price for it.
Next, we need to push the conversation forward, and have a robust debate about parenting, household chores, and gender roles—at work, at home, and in public. We must ask for support from our workplaces, and negotiate for child support, daycare vouchers, after school care, flex time, and maternity and paternity leave as part of our compensation packages.
We need businesses and organizations to support flexible career paths, to provide off-ramping and on-ramping programs so that taking time out to have a family is a phase of one’s career, not the end of it.
We must bring this up at home as well. We have to talk about housework, chores and responsibilities. Thankfully, gender and relationship roles have changed dramatically in the last twenty-five years. More partners actively share family duties and more dads stay at home.
Yet statistics on household work are still sobering. On average, men take on far less housework and parenting responsibility. Sharon Sassler, Cornell professor of policy analysis and management, who has studied gender roles and division of labor, says that the last frontier of gender equality might just be “who cleans up.”
Here’s where women can take the lead. They’re not just asking men to take more responsibility; they have to change as well. For some women, it might mean giving up the sense of control. For others, it might mean valuing their career as much as they value their husband’s. And for some, it means asking other family members, even older children, to step up.
Schireson’s post shows that it’s not just the canaries in the coal mine, but the miners, too, who are starting to show the strain. Men and women are closer than ever to finding a middle ground in which we can find solutions that work. Look at those global numbers. Let’s take inspiration from those countries.
If they can do it, so can we.
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Julie Diamond is a Leadership Consultant, Coach, and Trainer
She specializes in Designing and Delivering Leadership Development Programs
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